New Zealanders love Taskmaster UK. But will they warm to the homegrown version?
Guy Williams is doing his best to amp up the crowd, while Angella Dravid sits quietly alongside with her usual look of both discomfort and amusement. Leigh Hart has that wry smirk on his face that viewers of Moon TV and the Late Night Big Breakfast will know well.
I’m in the audience for a recording of Taskmaster NZ, just a week after Auckland shifted out of alert level three. I know in my heart of hearts that it can’t live up to the UK version. But I’m there to see just how bad it is. A part of me is very optimistic – the casting is about as perfect as you could get for a New Zealand version of the acclaimed UK comedy. Alongside Williams, Dravid and Hart are Madeleine Sami and Brynley Stent. It’s basically the dream lineup.
But it’s a New Zealand reboot! The odds are stacked against it, surely?
Taskmaster has gone from cult comedy to mainstream in the UK, returning for its tenth season this month. Its popularity in New Zealand has skyrocketed over the past couple of years and our own Rose Matafeo was even a panellist for series nine. Now, there’s a book, a board game, and creator and co-host Alex Horne has gone from nobody to celebrity.
The premise, for those who still have no idea what I’m writing about, is simple: five comedians perform seemingly menial or stupid tasks and are then ruthlessly ranked according to their performance. For example, paint a picture of a horse, while riding a horse. Make a meal with ingredients made from all 26 letters of the alphabet. Or, get a coconut as far away as possible, without touching the ground or stepping on the same object twice.
In the UK, The Inbetweeners’ Greg Davies does the judging. Here, it’s Jeremy Wells who takes on the role of the eponymous Taskmaster. Assisting him is Paul Williams, comic and musician, who slips into Horne’s role – the awkward accomplice and comic foil for the Taskmaster. The fact it pulls in millions of viewers in the UK is down in part to the chemistry between the two.
After watching the first episode, and seeing the second recorded live, I can safely and happily say the New Zealand reboot goes against the trend of terrible local versions of massive franchise hits. This is certainly no Would I Lie To You?, which – despite having Paul Henry and Jesse Mulligan – never came anywhere close to its UK namesake. It’s also at the complete opposite end of the quality spectrum to Gogglebox NZ (spoiler: that was incredibly shit).
The success of Taskmaster NZ comes down to a combination of sublime casting and the tasks themselves. For the show to work, it needs a range of comic talents: a stupid funnyman (Williams), a person who thinks outside the box (Hart), a wild card (Dravid), and a couple who float between the typecasts (Stent and Sami). I’ve seen only two episodes, so it’s possible those roles could change – but if the show had been filled with, say, the 7 Days cast, I doubt it would come anywhere close to replicating the UK version’s success.
The other important casting point is the Taskmaster and the assistant. Wells is probably the weakest part of this version, early on. It’s pleasing that he’s not pretending to be Greg Davies – Wells is very much playing himself – but his judging of the tasks is almost too… nice?
Paul Williams, on the other hand, is well-suited to the role made famous by Horne. He’s sheepish and uncomfortable enough, and the banter between the cast during the task sequences makes for hilarious watching. His banter with Wells, though, falls well short of the dynamic between Davies and Horne in the UK. This could easily improve if the TV gods give the show a long enough run.
At the recording I attended, the banter between Wells and Williams seemed more fluid and natural when the cameras weren’t rolling, so I’m confident things can improve on screen.
Of the contestants, Hart is the stand-out performer, largely because you can’t quite pin down what he’s thinking or what he’s going to do next. There’s a task in each of the first two episodes where his manic energy really works. Coupled with the latest season of The Late Night Big Breakfast, Hart will soon be known to a new generation as more than just the guy from the Hellers ads. While Hart steals a lot of the show, Taskmaster is a format where everyone gets a moment to shine – and nobody wastes their screen time.
For fans of the original, the tasks in the New Zealand version are all original, meaning you won’t see anything you’ve already seen tackled by the UK performers. Thankfully, the challenges remain equally as pointless, dumb, and open to interpretation. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Taskmaster NZ has made the bold choice of going to air at the same time as the latest season of the UK edition. Based on what I’ve seen so far, that might be a gamble that pays off. And while New Zealand television often has the problem of being cancelled before it takes flight, Taskmaster NZ starts high in the sky – and long may it continue.
Taskmaster NZ airs Wednesday nights at 8.30pm on TVNZ2.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.